After spending three days in the bright-light gambling mecca of Laughlin, most visitors are left trying to figure a way to recoup their losses.
Not the Payson Longhorns.
Following the basketball team's four-day stay at the Matador Invitational in the Nevada/Arizona border town, the team returned to Payson Dec. 16 with a 2-2 record.
Coach Mike Loutzenheiser said he's not cynical about the outcome. He said he's happy his team got valuable playing experience all the while holding its own against tough competition from California, Colorado and Canadian schools.
The coach also praised senior point guard Derek Daniels. "He played very hard, especially on the defensive end. Derek also gave us some great leadership."
The Horns opened tournament play by falling 73-52 to Rangeview, Colo. Later in the day, the Horns came back to beat Mohave 47-43. In the third round, Simco High School of Quebec, Canada beat Payson 47-38. The tournament finale saw Payson outplay Southwest El Centro, Calif., 43-39.
The individual highlight of the tournament might have been the offensive showing of Nick Cassuto in the win over El Centro. The senior forward, who once played for Tonto Village Shelby School, finished with a season-high 23 points. His 10-for-12 performance in the fourth quarter from the free-throw line helped Payson pull away to the four-point victory. Before Cassuto went on his free-throw rampage, the two teams were tied 28-28.
With 10 points, Chris Donaldson was the only other PHS player to reach double digits.
The Horns' only real threat in the game came from El Central hot shot Jeff Goff. The California shooting star single-handedly kept his team in the game, hitting nine three-point shots and two-of-two free throws.
In the first quarter alone, Goff scored 12 of El Centro's 14 points from beyond the 19 foot, 9 inch arch. In the crucial fourth quarter, Payson finally handcuffed Goff holding him to a pair of three-pointers.
In the win over Mohave, Cassuto again led the Payson offensive charge with 13 points. During this game, however, he got offensive help from Derek Daniels and Donaldson. Daniels finished with 12 points and Donaldson had 10. Jake Swartwood contributed six.
Against the visiting Canadians from Simcoe High School, the Horns were pitted against a team that had played 50 games this season and a coach who was looking for his 1,000 career win.
In Arizona high school play, rules restrict the number of games a team can play to less than 30. The Canadian coach picked up his monumental win mostly because the Horns offense sputtered most of the game.
The Horns, which were led by Cassuto's 11 points, did not score in double digits in any single quarter. Swartwood finished with seven points and Daniels had six.
Against Rangeview, Swartwood turned in his best offensive showing of his varsity career tallying 17 points. Normally a power player who bangs his way down low for shots, Swartwood moved outside to hit a trio of three-pointers.
Donaldson also turned in a solid offensive performance with 16 points, Of that, 10 came from the free-throw line. Cassuto tallied 12 and Nate Perna came off the bench to score four.
The Longhorns return to tournament action Dec. 26 to 28 at the Eastern Arizona Invitational to be contested on the campus of Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher. According to Loutzenheiser, the Mohave and EAC tournaments were included on the schedule to help prepare his players for East region play when it begins Jan. 10 in Wilson Dome against Snowflake.
Throughout January, the Longhorns will play at least twice a week against East region opponents.
The results of those games will determine if the Horns can attain their goal of a top-four East finish and a berth in the state tournament. State play begins Feb. 18 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
After losing two starters, Mike Barr and Waylon Pettet, in preseason, Loutzenheiser confidently predicted the depleted roster still had the wherewithal to advance to the state tournament.
Play in January will determine if the coach was on target with his prediction.